Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland celebrates 150 consecutive years in print, and it seems every where you look, there’s a book, exhibit, or documentary extolling the various virtues of this timeless tale. Even the British Royal Mail Service got into the spirit by commissioning a special series of stamps. The work was completed by none other than Kate Greenaway Medalist Grahame Baker-Smith. Regular readers of this site might recognize the name: In 2013 Baker-Smith illustrated an edition of The Selfish Giant (Folio Society), and we spoke then about his work. (You can read the conversation here.) Once again, the illustrator generously answered a few more of my questions and sent some stunning sketches he prepared  for this most recent assignment. Join me down the rabbit hole with Grahame Baker-Smith as we talk about inspiration, design, and illustrating a legacy.

Who was your design inspiration for Alice and the other characters? (If I may be so bold, there appears to be a family resemblance between you and the Alice character.)

Well spotted Barbara! My ‘muse’ for Alice was my youngest daughter, Lillie. She very patiently and graciously let me take pictures of her doing things like pretending she was falling down a rabbit hole or being squished in the White Rabbit’s house – for which she had to sit scrunched up beneath my table.

Lillie is actually very dark-haired but the Royal Mail wanted a light brown hair color, so in the stamps she looks to me like Lillie but wearing a wig.

How did you choose which scenes to create?

The Royal Mail left the composition to me but had a ‘shopping list’ of scenes they wanted covered. It was a shame there couldn’t have been more than ten designs as characters like the Caterpillar and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee had to be left out.

After 150 years, there’s been plenty of variations in art for the book. What’s it like tackling such a legacy?

Initially slightly terrifying! But, I reminded myself of the fact that the Royal Mail chose me for the thing that I do, so I tried to blot out everything I’d seen and play my natural game. I thought of the set of stamps as pages in a book. It was fabulous when [publishing house] Walker DID actually make them into a book. [The book is published in the United States by Candlewick Press.]

What was your work medium?

Well, everything begins with drawing, lots of drawing, in pencil, crayon, and pen. I tend to paint faces and other parts in acrylic. These are scanned into Photoshop and the rest of the design is built around it using Photoshop vector tools and brushes. I used crisp, clean shapes in Photoshop and minimal texture because of the size of the finished stamp. I needed something that would be very defined and positive at a small scale.

Did you create the pieces on a small scale, or work large and scale down?

Again this was a specific part of the brief. The printing of stamps needs to be very fine to hold the color, tones and textures at stamp-size. So the original images were 170 mm square, four times the size of the finished article. The DPI or print resolution was 600, usually 300 DPI is standard for print.

Did you read Alice in Wonderland growing up? (Or as an adult?) If so, was there a particular illustrated edition that resonated most with you? (Or not at all?)

I didn’t read Alice growing up. It’s one of those stories that, because of endless adaptations, you feel you know even if you’ve never read the book all the way through. I haven’t read it all the way through even now – I really should!

As for illustrations, Tenniel’s are so much a part of the whole legend of Alice it’s difficult to think of it without seeing his version; I also think they are marvelous illustrations anyway.

How do you perceive this story – I’ve spoken to some illustrators who viewed the tale as a whimsical fantasy, and others who saw nothing but a total nightmare, and illustrated it as such.

When I read the chapters pertaining to the scenes I had to illustrate I was enchanted by Carroll’s imagination, it seemed wild and unhinged. The feeling was of someone so in command of his literary prowess that he could conjure virtually anything into being and somehow make it work. I also felt there was an underlying truth that held it together and gave it – despite the utter madness – a gravity. It has something to say about the contrariness of people, the randomness of life and events. Characters like the Cheshire Cat seem to know so much about other people and the way the world really works while the Queen and King, with all the trappings of power, are unconscious beings who, through being unaware cause chaos and feel quite destructive and dangerous individuals.

Grahame Baker-Smith’s commemorate stamps are available through the British Royal Mail here, and the book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by Candlewick Press, is available for $8.99.

Searching for Serendipity in Cyberspace

Recently I wrote about the Folio Society’s new edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and Other Stories. (Check out some of the book’s illustrations here http://bit.ly/1fMGzm0 and the story here bit.ly/18H9MuZ.) Greenaway Medal winner Grahame Baker Smith created the illustrations.  

After my story went up,  I wandered the Twittersphere until I unintentionally stumbled upon the illustrator’s Twitter handle. In 140 characters I asked him if he would discuss perfecting his craft, inspiration, and future projects. He agreed, and below is our conversation, happily unrestricted by character limits.


THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

Could you tell me how you prepared for this commission?

A couple of coincidences actually prepared me for this commission, not the other way around. In early 2012 I was reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde, (a fabulous work of literature in its own right) which chronicles the extraordinary and poignant life story of Wilde.  At that time I also received a letter from a man named Nicholas Wilde inquiring about the illustrations I made for the 2011 Folio edition of PinocchioNicholas Wilde is a book collector and he particularly enjoys illustrated editions. We exchanged a few letters before I finally asked if he was by any chance related to Mr. Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. In fact, he is very distant cousin, and suggested that I ask Folio if they would like to do an edition of Oscar’s stories. Since the Folio Society is always open to suggestions they seized the opportunity.

What inspired your illustrations for this book?

The stories are what inspired me, it’s always the story and then – after lots of reading and making notes – I just start drawing and see what happens.

How long did it take to complete the images?

Each image took about a week to a week and a half, spread out over a period of about six months.

You are self taught. Can you describe how you became an artist?

I always loved art at school but didn’t get great marks for it (or anything else). I had a couple of jobs after leaving school but soon realised the ‘work’ thing wasn’t going to light me up! A period of unemployment became a time of complete obsession with drawing and painting. Sometimes it was very lonely, but my dream of doing this – and only this – became a powerful motivating force to practice, practice, practice and get good, something I’m still trying to do. So, I didn’t really become an artist – there just wasn’t an option to do anything else with my life! I still feel the same now, there is a cost in following your dreams but any other path seemed to me as a waste of life.

Do you have a favorite medium?

I have worked in most mediums at various times in my career – acrylic, watercolor, gouache, pastel, charcoal pen and ink. When I started using Photoshop five or six years ago I found it incredibly exciting to be able to mix virtually anything together. I still use a lot of drawing and other traditional methods, but usually it all gets filtered and composited through Photoshop.  For example, I used Photoshop techniques in the Wilde illustrations. It’s a part of the process now, just as drawing or painting is. 

What would you like to illustrate next?

I would love to illustrate some Edgar Allen Poe next, and do more fiction book covers, for some reason I don’t often get asked to do them. I’m also writing a novel for Templar (who published FArTHER) which will have black and white illustrations.

What are you working on now? 

I have formed a company called MisFits with my wife Linda, who is also an illustrator and designer. It’s a family affair; our 17 year old son is a brilliant coder for iOS and is helping us tremendously. We are using MisFits to develop story apps for iPad. We create apps from the idea phase to story, plot the flow-through and wireframe it, create the interface, artwork and animation and then code in the function and interactivity – all in-house! This is a really interesting challenge and it is amazing to weave animation and sound into a story. In terms of the artwork, we maintain the same standards as are applied to print books.  We are also actively finding other ways around the awful ‘page turn’ effect, a totally redundant feature in page-less applications.

I feel the creative possibilities are enormous but it seems a very natural progression to make. We want to make something beautiful and hopefully inspiring – that goal never changes.

I’m not turning my back on books though. I love books more and more as I get older and feel there is an awful lot more to do in print. I never want to give up illustrating books. To me, every day, it is a great joy and privilege to be involved in the world of story-telling.


Thanks to Cathleen Williamson and the Folio Society for sending these great images from Pinocchio. 

PINOCCHIO Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.

Wilde and Wonderful

“The Selfish Giant and Other Stories,” by Oscar Wilde; The Folio Society, $44.95, 192 pages, ages 13 and up.


THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.   

Perhaps best known as a playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde also wrote several fairy tales. The Folio Society has published a new edition that would make an excellent gift to fairy tale fans as well as to those who love a beautiful, well-crafted book.

As with everything published by the Folio Society, the production standards for The Selfish Giant are first-rate. A sturdy metallic silver box keeps everything safe, and beautiful end papers covered in snowflakes set a magical mood. The book is printed on Abbey Wove paper and is three-quarter bound in buckram. (Buckram is a 100% cotton cloth used to cover the boards of the book.) On the cover is an exquisite illustration of the title character looking over a little boy sitting in an ethereal white-blossomed tree.

Grahame Baker-Smith illustrated The Selfish Giant. (Smith was also recently commissioned to illustrate the Folio Society’s 2012 edition of Pinocchio.) During a conversation with the illustrator I asked if he incorporated Wilde’s likeness into any of the images. He did; try to find which one it is in the accompanying image post. The mixed-media illustrations capture Wilde’s wit, yet recall a certain melancholy, suggesting – rightly – that these stories are not for the faint of heart.

British fiction author Jeanette Winterson writes an engaging introduction, giving readers a quick primer on Wilde’s life while intertwining major life milestones with his work. She reminds us that these are not bedtime stories for babies; rather, Winterson declares that these tales ‘tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not’. As a result these stories deal with themes that young children may not understand.  Still, this is a glorious book, and as Wilde himself said, “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” 


The Selfish Giant Illustrations © 2001, 2013 by Bill Bell All Rights Reserved.

Sky Pony Press has also recently published a version of The Selfish Giant, retold by Mary Hollingsworth and illustrated by Bill Bell. At $14.95, this book is within the purchasing power of most consumers. The acrylic paintings are more whimsical than those in the Folio edition, and more appropriate for a younger audience. Hollingsworth has taken Wilde’s original text and modernized it somewhat, yet the story retains most of what exists in the original.

Here, young readers may better appreciate the story of an inconsiderate giant who chases children from his garden. To make sure the children stay out, the giant builds a wall. Not only are the children banished, so too are the seasons. The Giant is punished for his behavior until something unexpected happens, encouraging the ogre to change.

Unlike the Folio Society’s publication, Sky Pony has published just one fairy tale. It is short enough to be read in one sitting, but it does deal with themes of death as well as the Resurrection.  Avoid reading this story if your child has trouble conceptualizing death, unless this book is to be used as part of a larger conversation about mortality.

Thanks to Cathleen Williamson at the Folio Society for these images from The Selfish Giant and Other Stories. 

THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.